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Science is failing to guide policy in the preparations for the forthcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), warned some of Britain's leading experts in environmental and sustainable development issues yesterday (1 July).

"Science plays no part in most of the policies being promulgated by the World Trade Organisation and many national governments," said Jonathon Porritt, chair of the UK Commission on Sustainable Development.

Speaking at a media briefing on the WSSD at the Science Media Centre in London, Porritt urged science commentators to speak out about the way that "science is irrelevant to the way that the world is being run".

Science has lost its input into policy, agreed Felix Dodds, head of the Stakeholder Forum for Our Common Future, which is closely involved in preparations for the Summit.

"The scientific community disengaged after Rio [the 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro], and only started to re-engage in the preparations for Johannesburg," he said. "It's a great shame. But now it is engaged and is doing excellent work."

However, the demands drawn up by the scientific and technological community, he said — such as the encouragement of more policy-relevant science — have not made it into the document that will form the basis of the discussions at the WSSD.

Dodds was doubtful that the Summit, which opens in Johannesburg at the end of August, would lead to any concrete outcomes. "There is still hope, but it is waning," he said. "If we don't recognise that Johannesburg is teetering on the edge, then maybe we should consider the words of Martin Luther King: "Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilisations are written the pathetic words: 'Too late.'"

But others were hopeful that the Summit would yield more positive scientific outcomes. Crispin Tickell, a former UK ambassador to the United Nations, pointed to the science forum that is being held parallel to the WSSD as a way for the scientific community to have some input to the proceedings (see Science forum planned for world summit ).

However, Tickell also criticised the preparations for the Summit. "The process was started too late, and there was never a significantly strong sense of purpose," he said. The draft document for approval at the Summit is "so forested with square brackets [indicating disagreement] that you can hardly see through it", he added.

Tony Juniper, director designate of the Friends of the Earth, predicted that the main outcome of the Summit would be "political announcements crafted for domestic audiences".

"Science is not what is driving the summit, but rather domestic political issues," he said. "There is a disconnection between politics and science".

And Porritt was equally sceptical whether any concrete measures would emerge from the Summit. It would take "something bordering on a scientific miracle" to save Johannesburg, he said. "I wish attendees at the science forum well because they will be staring into a great black hole."

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